Handel: Occasional Oratorio

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LABELS: Hyperion
WORKS: Occasional Oratorio
PERFORMER: Susan Gritton, Lisa Milne (soprano), James Bowman (countertenor), John Mark Ainsley (tenor), Michael George (bass); Choir of New College, Oxford, King’s Consort, Choir & Choristers/Robert King
Bonnie Prince Charlie’s 1745 invasion of England was the occasion that prompted the Occasional Oratorio. London society erupted in a frenzy of patriotism, and Handel hastily threw together a martial piece full of blazing trumpets, thundering choruses and pious sentiments about God, King and country.


The libretto, drawn chiefly from Milton’s psalm revisions, was assembled by Newburgh Hamilton, described by fellow Handel librettist Charles Jennens as ‘the most absurd of all Blockheads’. For the music, Handel plundered his own scores, notably Israel in Egypt, the Coronation Anthems, Comus and Athalia, and also ‘borrowed’ from Telemann and Stradella. The result is an erratic hodge-podge, its perfunctory patches redeemed by a forty-minute ‘peak’ of vintage Handel that straddles Acts II and III. High points are a magnificent aria for bass, trumpet and oboe (‘To God our strength’) and the brilliant, volatile soprano aria ‘When warlike ensigns’.


Robert King and his forces display their customary vigour and expertise, qualities honed on their earlier recordings of the similarly bellicose Joshua and Judas Maccabaeus. The singers too are splendid, with Michael George outstanding. But the Occasional Oratorio remains a work that is, indeed, better heard occasionally. Graham Lock